Hybrid Done Right

The 296 GTB offers a new vision of hybridization—and it’s truly astonishing.

Photo: Hybrid Done Right 1
April 14, 2022

If politicians don’t change their minds, ten to 15 years from now there won’t be a single new car powered by fossil fuels left on the market. Before we meet this all-electric future, however, consumers around the world are already steadily heading in that direction courtesy of plug-in hybrids. In a few years these will become the default choice in the lineups of most carmakers, Ferrari included.

In theory, a plug-in hybrid looks like the perfect first step towards the world of electromobility. It offers an electric motor that can power the car on its own, along with a battery big enough to do so for a useful distance. This allows the internal combustion engine to be left off for much of the time, resting under the hood as a backup just in case it’s needed.

That’s the theory, anyway, because in real life it’s rare for a plug-in hybrid to operate solely on electric power. In my experience, plug-in hybrids are typically heavy, often cramped cars that work their tiny internal combustion engines hard. In short, I have yet to experience a plug-in powertrain that delivers on its promise.

Or, I should say, that was the case until I met the new Ferrari 296 GTB. As the tifosi know, it’s not the first hybrid to leave the gates of the divine Maranello factory—that honor goes to the mighty LaFerrari, introduced in 2013—or even the first plug-in hybrid—that was the SF90 Stradale, first seen in 2019. But the 296 GTB is something different than these two hypercars, for it will soon become the foundation of the brand’s sports-car offerings.

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All-new 663-hp 3-liter V6 tucks twin IHI turbochargers inside its hot vee for better performance and reduced emissions.

Ferrari may be most famous for its traditional front-engine V12 models, but for most of its history its core offerings have been nimble berlinettas with V8 engines mounted behind the driver. Alas, the latter lineage appears to have come to an end; despite the Italians being at pains to stress that the 296 GTB is not a successor to the F8, the factory is not taking orders for the Tributo or Spider “for the time being,” a situation which seems unlikely to change.

However you describe the new model, it’s going to have a tough time filling those V8 shoes. To me, the F8 is the best sports car in its segment, while its engine is the best turbocharged V8 in history. So how does the 296’s hybridized 3-liter V6 plan to improve on that incredible 4-liter 8-cylinder? With more power, of course.

MAKE THAT HEAPS of power, actually. The new GTB is a game changer on this front, too, with its internal combustion engine and Formula 1-derived MGU-K unit generating a whopping 830 hp—exactly the same amount as the limited-production 812 Competizione, which sits at the other end of Ferrari’s price sheet. Most of this power still comes from burning gasoline: The compact twin-turbo V6 produces a remarkable 221 hp/liter, bringing the total output to 663 hp.

This is a major step ahead of the 185 hp/liter offered by the F8’s Tipo F154 CD engine, and the new Tipo F163 delivers great progress on other fronts. The engineering team led by now-departed chief technical officer Michael Leiters increased the angle between the cylinder banks from 90 to 120 degrees, which allowed it to move the turbochargers from the sides of the engine into the middle of its vee. This in turn pushed the intake plenums from their usual location to the outside of the cylinder heads.

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The configuration, called a “hot vee,” is the latest trend among the makers of high-performance engines, but it’s not a new thing for Ferrari. The Italian company first tried it on its 1981 Formula 1 car, the 126 CK. A year later, the similar 126 C2 became the first turbocharged car to win the F1 Constructors’ World Championship.

In addition to greatly improved packaging, the hot-vee layout maximizes fluid dynamics and volumetric efficiency of the intake and exhaust plumbing. This both improves performance and, even more important these days, reduces emissions, which have become a serious challenge for every automaker in recent years.

For the 296’s all-new V6, Ferrari’s engineers utilized the highly sophisticated combustion chamber first seen on the SF90 Stradale. In this design, the fuel injector and spark plug are mounted centrally, with the injector system working at a massive 350 bar—some 5,076 psi—of pressure.

They also used a version of the SF90’s turbochargers, namely a pair of symmetrical, counter-rotating, mono-scroll blowers provided by longtime partner IHI of Japan. For the V6, smaller units with 11-percent smaller turbine rotors are fitted, which allows them to spin faster (up to 180,000 rpm) and react more quickly. Downsizing the turbos makes the V6 seems less like a turbocharged engine and more like a good-old naturally aspirated jewel from the golden age of motor racing.

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This, at least, was my impression when I first looked at the spec sheet—peak power arrives at a high 8,000 rpm, with a redline some 500 rpm later—and then when I actually heard a 296 GTB while approaching the Spanish Circuito Monteblanco, where Ferrari introduced the car to the press. The V6 configuration required a dramatically different crankshaft from the famous flat-plane version we’re used to on Ferrari’s V8 road cars. It’s more compact and lighter, with connecting rods 120 degrees apart. The new crank necessitated the introduction of a balance shaft and also introduced an unexpected new sound.

At low revs, the V6’s rumble sounds deep and fairly similar to recent turbocharged V8s. Play with the right pedal, though, and the bass quickly fades away, transforming into an immersive, high-frequency soprano. It’s impressive how engaging—and loud—the new engine sounds, especially given the presence of the gasoline particulate filters which have muted so many of today’s supercars. It’s not a coincidence that it was Ferrari’s engineering team—not the marketing one—which started calling this engine a “piccolo V12” (little V12) during development.

Inside the cabin, the V6’s soundtrack isn’t amplified by any sort of digital wizardry, although Ferrari once again reached for its tubo caldo (Italian for “hot tube”) solution, basically a pipe that catches the most attractive notes from the exhaust system and channels them close to the occupants’ ears. It’s a gimmick I can accept, given that the 296 GTB can motor along without making any sound at all.

Sandwiched between the internal combustion engine and the wonderful 8-speed dual-clutch F1 transmission (co-developed with Magna) found in the SF90 and Roma lies a dual-rotor, single-stator, axial flux motor. This disc the size of a frying pan, provided by British company YASA, provides an additional 167 hp and 232 lb-ft of torque. Ferrari doesn’t quote the combined torque of the hybrid drivetrain, supposedly not wanting its competitors to understand how exactly the engine and motor cooperate during acceleration.

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The electric part of the powertrain is fed by a 7.45-kWh battery, which is small even by plug-in standards and accounts for the 296’s modest 15 miles of electric-only range. [By way of comparison, the Porsche Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid, which claims 30 miles of electric-only range, features a 14.1-kWh battery.—Ed.] The tightly packed box weighs 154 pounds and is tucked behind the seats together with the AC/DC converter. The hybrid system’s design allows it to deploy stored energy very quickly, but it’s not so fast when it comes to charging. Refilling the battery from a 6-kW wall charger takes more than two hours, so it’s easier to let the internal combustion engine take on the job. The V6 is far better at it.

While the hybrid powertrain weighs a considerable 287 lbs. more than the F8’s V8, the 296 is not a heavy car by today’s standards. Indeed, the GTB tips the scales at 3,241 lbs. dry—just 77 lbs. heavier than the F8 and the same weight as its predecessor, the 488 GTB.

WHERE THE SF90 distributes its 1,000 hybrid horses between all four wheels, the 296 GTB sends all of its power to the rear rubber. I suspect this reveals something about its maker’s intentions, but there’s only one way to understand the car properly.

For my first taste of Ferrari’s newest, I grab the key of a bright yellow 296 outfitted with the Assetto Fiorano package. This track-focused option consists of some new external aerodynamic addenda, a GT-class passive suspension from highly respected Canadian racing specialist Multimatic, a set of competition-ready Michelin Pilot Sport Cup2R tires, a Lexan rear screen, and extra carbon fiber.

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All these upgrades save 26 lbs., but you’ll pay dearly for the privilege—ticking this box on the order form adds almost $40,000 to the $322,000 base price. It is, after all, a Ferrari! And given that the F8 Tributo’s base price was nearly $50,000 less, it’s easy to see why Ferrari doesn’t call the 296 GTB its successor.

While its market positioning may be a bit different than what I expected, when I slide inside the 296’s cockpit I find it’s typically raw and racy, with the general impression being of true athleticism. The traditional analog gauges have made way for a big, curved screen with some sci-fi graphics, while the steering wheel has been stuffed with haptic switchgear.

Ferrari regards its new wave of plug-in hybrid models as being for “the young,” but at age 32 I must be mentally old, because I think this Human Machine Interface is the 296’s only serious drawback. I find it unintuitive and generally irritating to operate, but then I don’t like the turn-signal buttons Ferrari has been using for some time, either. Nor do I like the imitation of the 1950s’ open shift gate with which, just like in the SF90, you operate the automatic gearbox. Call me old-fashioned, but it just looks cheap. And yes, it is also awkward to use.

On the busy steering wheel you’ll find not one, but two, manettinos. The one on the right is business as usual, allowing the driver to choose one of five modes: Wet, Sport, Race, CT-Off, and ESC-Off. The new “eManettino” on the left lets the car know how the electric power should be served.

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First there’s eDrive, which puts the drivetrain into its full-electric mode and limits top speed to 84 mph. Next is the default Hybrid mode, which shuffles between the two power sources as required. The third position on the menu, Performance, favors the combustion engine and keeps the battery fully charged, while the final Qualify mode throws all the power that’s currently available at the rear wheels.

I select a combination of Race and Qualify, then head out onto the track. While the 296 GTB might have sounded terribly complicated up to this point, it takes no more than the first straight, first braking zone, and first corner before everything becomes perfectly clear. Regardless of its powertrain, the new Ferrari is as thrilling, fast, and capable as any supercar I’ve driven. Just as impressive, despite the additional weight, a long list of driver’s aids, and, chiefly, two power sources of such differing natures, the 296 is admirably direct and pure in the way it drives.

The grip is so fierce that, during hard cornering, it can tear whole pieces of rubber from the hot tires and drain blood from my head. Then, when the corner opens to make way for a straight, the instant, relentless, gigantic power comes to the fore. Those 830 horsepower catapult the Ferrari to 62 mph in less than three seconds and 124 mph in just above seven seconds. Here, they let the car top 180 mph on Monteblanco’s main straight—which, for the record, isn’t that long at all.

It is long enough for me to notice that the battery is quickly emptying, though. I’m later told by Ferrari’s engineers that the hybrid system delivers the promised 830 horses only during the first several laps of such full-attack driving, after which it loses around 40-50 hp. This may come as an unpleasant surprise but, realistically, most drivers who take their 296s to track days won’t cover more consecutive laps, anyway, so engaging and exhausting (in the sense of the serious physical forces exerted on the driver and the mental effort required to pilot the 296 at top speed lap after lap) is this car.

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Continuing with that sense of engagement, the 296 GTB pushes alertness and eagerness to change direction to new heights among Ferrari’s mid-engine berlinettas. It’s another unexpected benefit of swapping a V8 for a V6. The smaller engine allowed a two-inch shorter wheelbase compared to the F8 Tributo, a move that benefits both handling and chassis stiffness.

It’s tempting to say the 296 GTB behaves like a fine race car on track, but in truth no real competition car is as forgiving and safe. Stay away from the CT-Off setting and the Ferrari’s rear axle will never lose grip, not even during trail braking—which, in motorsport, usually needs skill and bravery to perform.

Indeed, braking performance is one of the 296’s biggest strengths. Ferrari implemented a new ABS Evo system, which works with the new 6w-CDS sensor that measures the forces acting on the car in six axes. I’ve encountered only one car which showed similar flair in this field, the 2021 Porsche 911 GT3. But while Zuffenhausen’s finest is a great track weapon, the 296 GTB delivers one thing that 911 can’t: fun.

After a few laps, I feel familiar enough with the car to turn the right manettino to CT-Off mode—and instantly the rear axle feels like it has been let off the leash. Or, rather, put on a leash loose enough so that I can sample what all this power does to the rear wheels with risking life and limb.

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The length of this virtual leash is regulated by two more systems that have been perfected by the Italians over the years: the electronic differential and Side Slip Control. These have now reached a point such that I can use those 830 ponies to easily start a power slide, control it even with an extravagant steering angle, and then instinctively come back to straight ahead. I’m having too much fun when former F1 racer Marc Gené, who is driving the car ahead, radios me to put the manettino back to Race and head to the pits. Oops. It was worth it, though.

AFTER A QUICK discussion about my obviously Unintentional tail-out antics, I’m presented with another, very different 296 GTB. This second example, finished in a beautiful burgundy called Rosso Imola, does without the Assetto Fiorano package and I’m going to drive it on public roads.

It’s a good moment to stand back and realize just how subtle and elegant the 296 GTB can look. Not everyone loved car’s appearance in the first official photos, but after seeing it in the metal I think it’s another great accomplishment by Flavio Manzoni’s design team. The 296 brings a new quality to the supercar segment; it’s fresh and creative yet still 100-percent Ferrari.

Maranello is known for resisting the temptation to reincarnate its great models of the past. In this case, though, there’s a surprisingly direct reference to one of the most beautiful Ferraris ever made, the 250 LM. The 296 GTB seduces with the same sensual rear fenders and impresses with its dramatically clean surfaces.

At the same time, this Prancing Horse spurs the imagination with its state-of-the-art details. Clean surfaces notwithstanding, it’s an extremely complex design that is responsible for cooling the braking system and two engines which can raise the temperature behind the driver’s back to up to 1,600° F. The air that flows around the 296 GTB’s body is cleverly used not only to ventilate the engine bay but also to generate more downforce without increasing drag.

Ferrari’s designers aren’t particularly fond the moveable aerodynamic devices, and here they use only two. The first is the active rear spoiler, which raises at higher speeds in a way similar to the LaFerrari. Most of the time, though, the spoiler remains hidden between the rear lights, creating an elegant horizontal bar. The other active element is a set of flaps tucked into the diffuser.

Frankly, on public roads it’s not these high-fidelity details that count. Instead, I focus here on a completely different part of 296 GTB’s broad personality. Setting the eManettino to eDrive mode, I set off onto the mountain roads surrounding the track in a hushed Starship Enterprise manner. Ferrari’s claim of a 15-mile electric range seems viable, and the 296 feels happy to be driven in a relaxed way. The leather-rich interior in this non-Assetto Fiorano car is cozy and comfortable, the front trunk offers a useful amount of cargo space, and the magnetorheological suspension is very forgiving.

Yet all it takes is a quick flip of the manettinos to get the full supercar experience. On a narrow empty road high in the mountains, the 296 GTB’s acceleration varies between “nervous smile” and “jaw on the floor.” In these conditions, the 830 hp feels even more terrifying, the brakes even more aggressive, and the steering intimidatingly direct. It’s a beast, in a wonderful way.

When I hand back the keys, I feel startled and relieved. Despite my pre-drive misgivings, the 296 GTB might just be Ferrari’s greatest achievement in decades. It’s a crucial car for the brand’s future yet boldly completed with radically new ingredients. The Italians hit the bull’s eye on the first try. For the first time in my experience, a plug-in hybrid system becomes a means to bring an extra dimension to a car’s character.

This is great news both for Ferrari and its fans, because even if the brand’s future belongs to electrified cars, it’s still able to lead the pack in this interim new world. As for me, I can still get excited about the company’s new models and dream about them. Even the plug-in hybrid ones.

Also from Issue 198

  • 308 GTS restomod
  • NART Spyder replica
  • Rarities: J50
  • Ferrari's first World Championships
  • Petersen's annual Ferrari Cruise-In
  • F1: Red Dawn
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